Business jets: It's what's in the cabin that counts

 - July 29, 2008, 6:57 AM

“I want what I want, when I want it.” It sounds like the petulant voice of a pampered diva, or a corporate executive with delusions of grandeur. Actually, it’s pretty much any of us. Perhaps not in such a demanding fashion, but we’d all like to have what we want when we want it. And that is pretty much the driving force behind business aircraft cabin furnishings and equipment.

The business jet is both a business tool and a means of personal transportation. And what the corporate executives and the private owners in the cabin have long demanded is an imperceptible passage from the office or home to the aircraft cabin. They want the same sense of belonging, the same décor. But more than anything else they want to be able to pick up the remote and discover at their fingertips the same user-friendly access to entertainment and information systems that they had at the office or at home. The problem has been that what they demanded was not available. But that’s changing.

In the past year the business aircraft interior completion and refurbishment industry has seen some major changes.

Rockwell Collins, one of the big guns in electronics, added to its arsenal last fall when it acquired cabin entertainment specialist Airshow. What emerged was Airshow 21, “a solution set for the business aviation cabin.” Its product family includes high-speed Internet connectivity, entertainment (DVD, CD and satellite-direct television) and cabin environment controls, tied together with simplified user interfaces.

A main ingredient is air-to-ground data connectivity for secure, high-speed airborne access to e-mail, the Internet and videoconferencing. The system also provides interfaces for file sharing and standard office equipment, including printers, fax machines and scanners.

A local-area network (LAN) allows multiple users to access the system and connect to ground-based networks at the home office. The system can be further enhanced by adding wireless LAN (WLAN), permitting users to maintain network connections while moving around in the cabin.

At the same time the merger was announced at the NBAA Convention last fall, Rockwell Collins announced the availability of a new multi-regional satellite-direct television system. Known as Collins Tailwind 550, the system’s key component is a new fuselage-mounted antenna with program reception from satellites over the entire Ku-band, from 10.7 GHz to 12.75 GHz. Deliveries began in December, and a spokesman said tests in the Middle East region went well and availability there is expected by the end of this year.

The company also won a contract last fall to develop an “integrated cabin electronics solution” for Bombardier’s Global 5000. Airshow 21 will provide the system’s architecture to support a complete line of cabin electronics designed to meet an owner’s individual requirements. First component shipments began earlier this summer.

More recently, Rockwell Collins received STC approval of its high-speed satcom system for the Falcon 50, 900 and 900EX. According to the company, it is the first STC installation that permits the use of aviation safety services in the flight deck and simultaneous voice and high-speed data transmission and reception in the cabin.

Rockwell Collins proprietary software management ensures that the flight deck maintains its priority and pre-emptive receipt of essential communications. It also validates frequency assignments to ensure there is no interference with GPS frequencies. The installation and STC approval was through Pentastar Aviation in Waterford, Mich.

Collins HST-900 provides Internet and e-mail access at speeds up to 64 kbps, using Inmarsat’s Swift64 service, the existing satcom antenna and the SAT-906 high-power amplifier.

The company expects to make available a second HST 900 as a second circuit by early next month. It is also considering bonding two HST 900 circuits to provide 128 kbps capability.

Honeywell Expands Cabin Capability with Addition of Baker

Honeywell’s acquisition last year of Baker Electronics also signaled a further expansion into cabin avionics by the Phoenix-based company. Honeywell wasted no time renaming its new division Honeywell Cabin Management Systems and Services and announced it would remain based in Sarasota, Fla. Baker was best known for its cabin-management equipment, cockpit audio systems, LCD flat-panel screens and moving-map displays.

The new division’s focus, according to Honeywell executive v-p John Uczekaj, is development of a line of products and services for airborne access to e-mail, the Internet and audio/videoconferencing. Honeywell also recently announced FAA certification of its AIS-2000 OneView multi-region satellite-direct television system in the Gulfstream IV, Bombardier’s Global Express and Challenger, and in the Boeing Business Jet.

The two mergers have put Rockwell Collins and Honeywell in a neck-and-neck race to garner the lion’s share of the business aircraft cabin avionics market.

Another major industry change is anticipated as satellite systems provider Inmarsat seeks stability. According to a spokesman, the UK-based company continues to monitor the markets to determine the appropriate timing for an initial public offering. At the same time, he added, “It remains open to options that serve to enhance shareholder value.” This last comment has raised expectations that Inmarsat owners would consider sale of the company. Reports of possible suitors have included Apollo Advisers, Apax Partners and (said to have been a bidder for Jet Aviation) European finance house Permira. Inmarsat operates nine satellites, providing worldwide voice and 64-kbps data service to thousands of aircraft operators and other users.

High-speed Internet Connectivity

In the field of in-flight high-speed Internet access there remains three high-powered competitors– Boeing Connexion, SkyLink and Inmarsat’s Swift64.

Swift64 offers bidirectional 64-kbps datalink to and from aircraft flying in most areas of the world and offers about four times the typical ground-based, dial-up connection speed. There is also a movement toward using two Swift64 systems simultaneously to obtain 128-kbps speed.

Boeing Connexion is in the final stages of development, but at this point its phased-array, fuselage-mounted antenna is so large that it is practical only on bizliners. As tested, FlyNet has consistently demonstrated connection speeds of about 128 kbps.

But while the test program on a Lufthansa Boeing 747-400 has triggered a wave of interest from the business aviation community, Boeing Connexion continues to focus primarily on the airline market.

Arinc’s SkyLink seems to be the leader in the race to bring true high-speed Internet connectivity to business aviation. Key to the program is a small Arinc-designed Rantec dish antenna suitable for aircraft as small as the Citation X. The system could be operational as early as the fourth quarter of this year.

SkyLink will use SES Americom’s Ku-band satellite capacity covering North America. It is expected to offer uplink speeds between 512 kbps and 3 mbps and downlink speeds up to 128 kbps. Flight tests are being conducted in cooperation with Gulfstream Aerospace on a Gulfstream business jet. The commitment makes Gulfstream SkyLink’s launch customer.

An Arinc spokesman said that while the existing antenna is too large for smaller business aircraft, the company is working with an independent vendor to develop a smaller antenna that will put high-speed Internet connectivity within the reach of those operating entry-level business jets.

Honeywell is also in the race and in May announced a new HS-700/702 package that enables satellite communications systems to handle data up to 128-kbps. First installations of the system, developed in partnership with Thales, are expected to enter service this summer.

Wireless Cabin Connectivity

Wireless cabin connectivity is a concept that is growing almost as quickly as high-speed Internet connectivity. It is already present on the ground, allowing computers to “talk” with a common network server, as well as connect to the Internet, all without the added weight and cost of connecting wiring.

The bottom line? With LAN still in its infancy, it is already about to be replaced by WLAN. In fact, Lufthansa Technik just last month was granted an STC from German and UK aviation authorities for installation of a wireless radio connection in the Boeing 747-400. The STC was the culmination of a successful effort by Lufthansa Technik, Boeing Connexion, Boeing Commercial Airplanes and British Airways Engineering.

“We’re going to build on this certification as a basis for putting wireless LANs aboard other airplane types as well, and thereby broaden the use of airborne digital distribution systems for entertainment and communication purposes,” said Bernhard Conrad, senior v-p of engineering and production at Lufthansa Technik’s completion center.

While e-mail has virtually replaced “snail mail,” being able to pick up the telephone and be in instant voice contact remains the next best thing to being there.

AirCell in the past six months has introduced two new airborne tele-communication products based on Iridium satcom technology. The AST 3500 ($26,995) combines an air-to-ground cellphone with an Iridium satellite receiver and antenna. AirCell’s AST 3100 ($19,995) relies exclusively on the Iridium link. Deliveries began in April, and both are designed for retrofit with most AirCell installations.

AirCell is also developing airborne hardware that would essentially turn the aircraft into a flying cellular relay tower, letting anyone inside place calls using a regular analog-based cellphone. A small onboard computer would pick up the cellphone’s signals and transmit them to cellular ground stations without disrupting calls below. A product launch might come as early as this fall, with testing to begin early next year.

Those in a hurry for this kind of service might want to look into the new Sky Connect Executive from Takoma, Md.-based Icarus.

At $25,000, Sky Connect comes with two cordless telephones that can be used anywhere in the airplane, two charging cradles, a low-drag patch antenna and transmitter/ receiver. The contract provides the user 3,000 free hours over a three-year period. The total weight, including the two telephones, is less than seven pounds. Buyers can opt for a contract that does not include the free hours at a price of $20,000.

Additional cordless telephones are available, and a private branch exchange function permits the transfer of calls from one telephone to another. They can also function as an intercom system within the airplane. The telephones also come with laptop computer ports, and while the slow speed of 10,000 bps will allow the user to check e-mail, it isn’t practical for “surfing the Net.”

According to Icarus president Steve Silverman, the company obtained an STC for Sky Connect in January and the systems are already in service “with a number of high-profile operators.”

Sky Connect, said Silverman, uses the Iridium satellite array and with it Icarus guarantees 24/7 coverage “over the entire earth’s surface, from sea level to any altitude you want to fly at.”

Also under development by several companies is a system that would allow the airborne use of any personal cellphone through the use of an onboard “cell relay.” AirCell already markets such a system and has enough ground stations for seamless connectivity over North America. The downside is that there is little or no service available elsewhere in the world.

Blue Sky, the La Jolla, Calif. communications network, is offering its own “satcom solution” this summer in the form of the BSN D-1000, which allows GPS reporting, two-way e-mail messaging and sensor-data reporting.

A key feature is the ability to receive both Iridium and GPS data through the same antenna. Rather than interface with cockpit avionics, the BSN D-1000 has an embedded GPS. The unit is unique in that it takes advantage of a short-burst data packet service.

An agreement by Blue Sky Network with Flight Explorer, announced in May, ties ground- tracking capability with the BSN D-1000. Customers who purchase the communication equipment package and service will be provided with a Web-based aircraft tracking and mapping capacity powered by Flight Explorer. However, according to Jonas Olsen, v-p of business development, a customer need not give up his or her current flight-tracking service. “We will simply provide the data through an FTP site.”

According to Olsen, the BSN D-1000 will cost $4,995. Even with an additional $1,000 for the antenna kit, the pricing alone is likely to make it an attractive competitor.

“We think we’ve made a fantastic product, but we’re not ‘giving it away,’” said Olsen. Blue Sky expects to make its money on recurring monthly revenue on a price-per-unit use basis. For example, he explained, “If you need 1,500 reports monthly–the equivalent of about 1,500 small (about 2,000 characters) e-mails–the cost would be $199.”

Also this summer, Blue Sky expects to offer an update of the C-1000 fixed console system, which includes a full-feature Motorola Iridium satellite telephone. The C-1000A will provide for an analog interface that will allow the user to attach any standard telephone–fixed or cordless–to the unit.

LED Lights the Way

Elsewhere in the cabin, LED lighting is rapidly becoming the standard. Shelley Ewalt, v-p of completions marketing at Duncan Aviation, said it has become so important that the company has partial cabin mockups so customers can see the difference between LED and other lighting. “About half of our customers come in saying at the outset that they want LED lighting,” said Ewalt.

B/E Aerospace’s Business Jet Group in Holbrook, N.Y., has become a leading provider of LED lighting systems and is now offering full-cabin LED lighting, including overhead wash and reading lights.

The advantage is not price–still slightly higher than alternatives–but that the light more closely approximates sunlight, is cheaper to maintain, weighs less, produces less heat, and lasts well over 25,000 hours. According to a B/E spokesman, even after 50,000 hours, the LED lights were emitting 70 percent of their original light output.

B/E is also offering LED as a “full-spectrum digital mood lighting system” that allows the user to select from about 16.7 million colors. The system can be programmed to produce any selection of color, from a subtle hue, to sudden color shifts for dramatic effect. According to v-p and general manager Rod Stoehr, the commercial airline segment will probably be the first to embrace it, primarily as a branding tool.

While gas plasma monitors have become commonplace in larger business jets, Baker Electronics (now part of Honeywell Cabin Management Systems and Services) hasn’t capitulated and believes it has a reasonable alternative. In December last year it introduced the industry’s first 30-inch flat-screen LCD monitor. The unit weights 25 pounds, is four inches thick, provides a 170-degree viewing angle and will accept analog signal or computer VGA input. A spokesman said the monitor not only weighs about 55 pounds less than a comparable gas plasma monitor, but consumes less power and requires no additional bulkhead depth for cooling. It also produces no electromagnetic interference. The unit is priced in the $25,000 range.